We can understand Christianity (and religion generally) as a method of control and oppression. There is no doubt that this view has validity. We can see it in history, where the church has been a big political player. We can see it in a local church, where emotional blackmail, guilt, and ostracism are used to great effect. This use of religion is against the stated aim of the early church who saw Jesus as one who came to bring life and life in all its fullness. (John) And the apostle Paul said,
Galatians 5:1 For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.
Galatians 5:13 For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another.
He was speaking against the use of religion to control. So, I conclude that religion used to control is sub-Christian, even if it is using the name of Christ in its proclamation.
Christianity can also be seen as a reality avoidance mechanism to cope with the fear of not being, of death, and the sheer anxiety of life. Here religion constructs answers that enable the avoiding of these issues by providing comforting answers.... Death is not to be feared because in the end it is not the end; it is merely transition to something better! We don't need to fear the future because God will look after us....
The validity of this claim about Christianity can be seen in the hysterical "over the top" responses which come from people when their religious views are challenged, and from the way they must damn those who do not agree with them.
However, the anxiety of life does need to be dealt with. We all face it. We must all cope in some way. Those who think they stand alone without a coping mechanism have simply not woken up to themselves yet! So a discipline which deals with anxiety of life is in itself not a bad thing; indeed the opposite is true. The question is whether the discipline is an avoidance mechanism or a positive discipline which enhances our humanity, and that of the people around us.
Religion has also been understood as a mediator of the Divine. To look upon the face of God was to die. Religion and its rituals were to bring one safely into the presence of the divine. There is still a need for this mediation. Whilst we might not see God as a personal being, God as Being, and all the overwhelming enormity of the cosmos still needs mediation. We still need companions on the way through life. We still need a firm place when Otherness bursts into our consciousness, and the dreams and hopes and fears of our little being run rampant into our partly ordered life, threatening chaos. We need a way to harness the energy that is there as we contemplate and pray facing the profundity of All That Is.
The "besetting sin" of the Christian faith as I experience it, is to call out the news that there is a way to approach All That Is, and then in a mediocre kind of mediation, slide into avoidance, or fall into the corrupting temptation of control. We promise God, and then avoid the truth. We bring people a small truth and then call it Truth, make it absolute, and fall into the sins of control and avoidance. We subvert grace. Jesus is reported to say Matthew 23:15 "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you cross sea and land to make a single convert, and you make the new convert twice as much a child of hell as yourselves."
If Jesus is right and the truth will make us free, then limiting the truth is going against all that he said!
For example: Many Christians are (rightly) deeply troubled by issues surrounding the justice of God, who seems arbitrary in allowing evil to happen to innocent people. The arguments and solutions to this problem have never been satisfactorily resolved. Indeed in the twentieth century, with the growth of war and genocide the problem became more acute. Part of the issue is that the truth has been limited. The church has made certain doctrinal positions absolute, and forbidden people to go outside them. "God is all-powerful" and "God is all-loving" are contradictory statements when we inspect them with the light of suffering and pain. Yet the refusal to acknowledge them to be limited truths about the Truth of All That Is, means we turn away from freedom. By taking refuge in jargon such as "mystery" or by calling the questioners heretics and apostates, we have retreated from truth to oppression or from truth to reality avoidance. Only by having the courage to face the contingent nature of our little truths, and going beyond "the all powerful all loving god" can we remain free and find a greater truth. The problem of suffering under a just God will NEVER be resolved until this move is made.
I have a friend who specializes in doggedly asking awkward questions and thinking the unthinkable. He is one of the more creative Christians I know. His local church and presbytery combined to excommunicate him. He said recently that he had realised that he could never be a member again in that presbytery in his life time. I think that as long as they continue in the spirit that threw him out, they will never have the freedom that the New Testament talks about. For they have had a fundamental failure of courage and fenced the gospel in with oppression and half truth that avoids the reality of life. At the same time, despite all the pain, my friend seems to have blossomed. One can only hope that through him and those like him, the gospel will again escape from the limiting lies we tell.
(C) Andrew Prior
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
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